Meadowlarks, from John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1840-44.

37. Audubon, John James (1785-1851).
The Birds of America. Philadelphia: J. B. Chevalier, 1840-1844.

Audubon’s Birds of America, in its double-elephant folio format, is perhaps the best known and most highly prized work of natural history in the modern era.  Audubon began issuing the plates by subscription in 1827, and the last of the 435 plates finally appeared in 1838.  Not quite so appreciated is the smaller sized version, called the octavo edition, that Audubon published between 1840 and 1844.  The much smaller plates of this edition do not overwhelm by their size, but they have a great deal of charm, and because Audubon, for this edition, abandoned the premise that the birds all be life size, the plates of the smaller birds like the warblers and wrens seem much more sensible.

Audubon’s painting of the Louisiana Heron appears on the cover of the printed catalog; Audubon called this bird “the Lady of the Waters.”   His rendering of a family of meadowlarks is wonderfully rich, while managing to show both male and female from a variety of angles.  The barn swallows are just delightful, especially in the contorted posture of the male, which is a typical Audubon flourish in many of his paintings.

Barn Swallows, detail, from John James Audubon, The Birds of America, 1840-44.
Linda hall Library